Editor’s note: see the previous installment in Pierre’s series about the history of science fiction: “The 10 Most Influential Science Fiction Stories of the 1910s“
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, science fiction had begun to take definite form as a distinct genre. Before that, fantastic stories with scientific premises were not treated much differently by publishers or critics from novels of gothic romance or exposes of modern life, or the trials and tribulations of small town folk. But Jules Verne and especially H.G. Wells triggered something in young people who had grown up with constant news of scientific progress and a steady stream of inventions from Thomas Edison’s laboratory.
Indeed, it was Edison’s example, as well as those by Alexander Graham Bell and Wilbur and Orville Wright, that promoted the notion that anyone might come up with the next great invention from their basement workshops. Imaginations that had been grounded by Horace Greeley’s admonition to “Go West, young man! Go West!” had slowly begun to be freed from such limited and earthbound goals and released into a universe of possibilities. Jack Williamson banged out stories of far worlds and interstellar warfare from a shed on his family’s New Mexico farmstead. H.P. Lovecraft scrawled ornate and awful visions of alien intelligences far beyond what mortal minds could comprehend all while never leaving the confines of his second story walk-up in Providence, Rhode Island. And the same thing was beginning to happen everywhere in the United States and, in some cases, elsewhere in the world.
The 1920s were an important transition period in SF from the literary tradition of Wells to the Wild West-style action of what would become known as space opera. And even as Wells’ ability to fascinate faded, new writers, championed primarily in the United States by the likes of Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, pioneered a growing market for pulp magazine-based science fiction.
That movement began in 1926 with Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine devoted completely to stories of science fiction. The magazine was published by Hugo Gernsback with the intention of using its stories to promote science and invention, but the SF movement proved more popular than the publisher anticipated and quickly escaped his control. To satisfy the demand for such stories, other magazines soon followed with editors eagerly cultivating American talent that soon enough eclipsed the few foreign writers working in the genre. Proceeding at a dizzy pace, 1920s SF quickly saw the birth of major trends that would dominate the field for decades to come including extra sensory powers, alien contact, time police, and robots. One of the most enduring was “space opera” that covered the rise and fall of star-faring empires and the fate of whole galaxies and dimensions in time and space. The form lost favor in the 1960s but made a comeback of sorts as the new century approached, spurred in part by the worldwide success of the Star Wars films proving the enduring nature of SF’s basic tropes.
The very newness of science fiction (or “scientifiction” as it was called then) invited excitement in readers primed for a literature that mixed science with romantic adventure while inspiring writers to unleash the wildest of their imaginings in stories that challenged a society whose adult population was unused to flights of fantasy. In the shadow of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasies of the 1910s, the following top 10 trend setting SF stories of the 1920s laid the groundwork for the coming golden age of science fiction.
10) The Mad Planet
Sort of an early disaster novel taken to the nth degree, The Mad Planet sees the earth’s surface become a fever swamp filled with disease and giant insects with the dwindling human race reduced to savagery and forced to retreat to ever higher climes. First published in Argosy magazine in 1920, this tale by Murray Leinster set the tempo for much of SF in the following couple of decades.
9) “The Threat of the Robot”
David H. Keller was an imaginative and prolific scribe in the early years of SF. In 1929, “Threat of the Robot” set the tone for many SF tales to follow with its warning of over-reliance on mechanization. It also has the distinction of being the first story to use the word “robot” in its title!
8) “The Metal Man”
One of the earliest stories dealing with radiation, “The Metal Man” appeared in Amazing Stories (Dec. 1928) and was SF legend Jack Williamson’s first professional sale. In vivid prose and searching detail, it tells the story of a man slowly turning to metal after being exposed to radium.
7) “Crashing Suns”
Somewhat ahead of E.E. Doc Smith in his use of an intersteller police force (that he called, naturally enough, the Interstellar Patrol), Edmond Hamilton began his long career in SF telling tales on a grand scale with “Crashing Suns,” a typical example. Published in Weird Tales (Aug-Sept 1928) it’s the first of a number of adventures starring the Patrol. Here, our stalwart heroes must stop alien invaders from driving their own sun into ours and thus wrecking the solar system!
6) “The Intervention of Professor Telepath”
Author J. Russell Warren’s 1922 story “The Intervention of Professor Telepath” is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, stories to feature not only telepathy, but telepathy used in service of the police to help them solve crimes. Not the last time readers would hear about this subject!
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) was one of the earliest SF novels to deal with the dystopian future society, one in which the government regulates every aspect of the individual’s life, including sex for which coupons are issued in order to ration intercourse! We would not be the last cautionary tale in science fiction exploring dysfunctional future societies!
4) “Armageddon 2419 AD”
Philip Nowlan introduces Buck Rogers to the world in “Armageddon 2419 AD” published in Amazing Stories Dec. of 1928 (the same issue as Williamson’s “Metal Man”). In addition to the titular hero himself (who’ll go on to conquer books, comics, movies, and television), the story also spotlights an America overrun by foreign hordes, soon to become a staple of SF for many years.
A play written in 1921 by Czech wordsmith Karel Capek, R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) had the distinction of popularizing two SF staples: the robot (derived from the word “robotnik” meaning “working man), which Rossum’s creations were in name only; and the android, which the “robots” in R.U.R. actually were (Rossum created synthetic beings by use of a chemical compound).
2) “The Colour Out of Space”
Published in Amazing Stories (Sept 1927), “The Colour Out of Space” involves the horrors visited upon a hapless farm family after a meteorite lands on their property. Along with author H.P. Lovecraft’s other stories of alien invasion, this story became the basis of a new, scientific approach to horror. Uninterested in the gothic claptrap of ghosts and hauntings, Lovecraft preferred to have the scares in his stories arise from the sheer otherness of alien life which he believed would be wholly inexplicable to human beings. It was an approach that proved enduringly and increasingly popular over the decades since this story was first published.
1) “The Skylark of Space”
First published in Amazing Stories in that amazing year of 1928, E. E. Doc Smith’s “The Skylark of Space” revolutionized science fiction with the interstellar scope of its action, what would later be called “space opera.” Smith went further than even H. G. Wells had done with The War of the Worlds and opened the door in science fiction to a whole new universe of possibilities. Those fantastic vistas inspired a legion of admirers, including Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, and continue to be an influence almost a hundred years later with such recent films as Green Lantern and upcoming Star Wars movies.